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International Voluntourism Guidelines: Feedback from the Industry

Rainforest

What we know about voluntourism as an industry and as a community is isn’t always clear. We know there are pros (travel, learning about yourself and new cultures, etc.) and cons (better ways to help the local community, lack of sustainability) of voluntourism. It's also true that not all volunteer abroad projects are created equal - some are more responsible, sustainable, and conscious of the local community than others. But what makes a project “responsible” and “sustainable”?

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) and the Planeterra Foundation worked together with an international advisory committee to answer the tough questions about voluntourism. Because definitions and standards aren’t set in the industry, these two influencing organizations came together to share their knowledge and help improve the industry. By setting industry standards, the report ultimately hopes to ensure the sustainability of all voluntourism trips.

This isn’t the first report or set of guidelines that have been published about the volunteer abroad industry. TIES and Planeterra have also published reports on the subject for the last two years: 2011 Voluntourism Guidelines Survey Summary Report by TIES and Planeterra, with the support of the Advisory Committee (from the industry perspective) as well as the 2010 Voluntourism: Give a Little, Gain a Lot report by TIES and Planeterra (from a volunteer’s perspective).

A Breakdown of the Report

By following our checklist with the information outlined by the report, international volunteer providers can determine if their volunteer project follows the International Voluntourism Guidelines to ensure the sustainability and effectiveness of the project. The guidelines are broken into four sections:

  • Starting a Volunteer Project - Should your organization be offering volunteer projects?
  • Communication/Messaging - Can your organization effectively communicate the necessity and importance of this volunteer project?
  • Choosing Volunteers - Not everyone is fit for every project so be sure to choose volunteers with the right attitudes, skills, and experience.
  • Measuring and Tracking Impact and Success - In a transparent way, your organization should define and measure its success and impact and use that information to improve.
How to use the voluntourism report to create a better future

In my opinion and experience from both sides of the industry, I would say that providers already strive to follow most of these guidelines. Below are some aspects of the voluntourism industry that stand out to me that could be improved. In addition to a summary and analysis from yours truly, I've included responses on each topic from major volunteer provider organizations and experts as well.

Ensure the Local Community Always Comes First.

Volunteers digging

This is the most important point in the report. If this isn't met, the whole project is more harmful than helpful. One way Go Overseas can encourage providers to prioritize this is to clarify on program listings whether they have offices on-site or if a local partner organization in the community works directly with the volunteers. This distinction, whether good or bad, will give insight to the organization’s level of involvement in the community where they send volunteers. The best way to improve voluntourism will be to refocus priorities on the local communities instead of the volunteers.

Choose the Right Volunteers.

As voluntourism becomes more of an industry and a business, I worry that some organizations are too focused on making money. What would it take for a volunteer provider to turn away a potential customer? I think that when getting into the business of sending volunteers overseas, you should be prepared to make business sacrifices for a greater, ethical good.

The report urges organizations to be pickier and ask more questions of potential volunteers to ensure their skills/experience/interests align with the project. Telling someone that they aren't right for your organization or that volunteering may not be their best option and giving them alternatives may not be the best business choice but the point is that when it comes to volunteering abroad, the well-being of the local community always comes before the organization’s success. Luckily, it sounds like some major providers are already doing this!

What are your requirements and process for choosing and accepting the right international volunteers?
Love Volunteers logo

Julian Phillips: We turn away some volunteers for a number of reasons. We are lucky that a majority of the volunteers who apply to Love Volunteers are just what our local partners are looking for. If we feel a potential volunteer is not suitable for a project, we generally try and find an alternative. For example, some projects have a greater level of autonomy than others. Obviously some people, perhaps those with less life experience, are better suited to projects with more guidance, while more mature volunteers thrive with an element of autonomy.

-- Julian Phillips, Love Volunteers Director

IVHQ logo

Daniel Radcliffe: Our requirements are outlined on the VolunteerHQ.org website, however in the past we have had volunteers apply for these projects who do not meet the specified requirements. These volunteers are then contacted by the IVHQ Team and offered suggestions of alternative projects that they are more suited to. Proficient levels of Spanish are also required for our Teaching English projects in Latin America. This helps maximize the effectiveness of our volunteers in facilitating the learning of local students. Language lessons are also offered to volunteers in country by IVHQ’s partner organizations and in some countries, volunteers are accompanied by local staff to their placements to help with translations.

-- Daniel Radcliffe, IVHQ CEO

Define and Measure Impact.

Most organizations measure their success and impact by tracking statistics of things like number of volunteers sent abroad, houses and schools built, trees planted, money raised, etc. While this information is useful and attractive for many purposes, I would like to see some more critical, transparent information about the effect that these projects, volunteers, and money have on the local communities long-term. The Voluntourism Guidelines focus on communication with the local community to analyze and improve the project's impact on local life. Without proper communication, how can you really understand the effectiveness of your work?

Reviews are an important part of feedback. Reviews not only help volunteers find the right project, but they also help voluntourism companies improve their programs. When volunteers share their experiences and critical feedback, they give back to the volunteer abroad community to help it grow. This section of the report also includes useful information on how to perform a "community needs assessment", another common and very important way to understand the community's needs and how voluntourism effects those needs.

How does your organization use feedback from volunteers to improve your projects?
CCS logo

Lauren Maitland: We survey our volunteers throughout their experience - pre, during, and post departure. Based on the feedback and trends we make adjustments to our process and program as necessary.

Our Senior Manager of Program Quality and Evaluation constantly reviews our volunteer feedback. He tracks both qualitative and quantitative feedback. In addition to volunteer feedback, we conduct a Partner Organization survey where the partners review our volunteers and the impact they have. We compare trends from this survey and those from the volunteer survey to address any issues or areas of improvement.

One example: our volunteers were rating their ‘ability to be effective at their placement’ category lower than we would have liked. Based on that rating and verbal feedback from our volunteers we created a placement guide which outlines how to be an effective volunteer, it also contains information on the demographic of the population and ideas for working with them. Since then that category has improved and has met our goal.

-- Lauren Maitland, Cross-Cultural Solutions Director of Programs

Greenheart Travel logo

Anna Kacyn Labat: There have been numerous times where a volunteer tells us something about the project that they felt could have been improved upon and we’ll discuss with our partner to improve it. We had a volunteer tell us that she loved her volunteer trip in Ecuador, but felt the orientation could have used an introductory Spanish classes. The next group that went had Spanish class and Ecuadorian culture during the orientation.

-- Anna Kacyn Labat, Director of Greenheart Travel

IVHQ logo

Daniel Radcliffe: In terms of placement orientation: In some countries we were finding some volunteers were coming back to us saying they felt they "were not useful". From our research, there were big communication issues with volunteers not being inducted properly into their projects and shown the work that was required to be done. In some instances, placement staff were too afraid to ask the volunteers to work and treated them like guests (instead of labor).

As a result of this feedback, IVHQ drew up a placement orientation document and delivered it to all international staff, providing a process for best practice for identifying where/if volunteers were required at projects, ensuring volunteers were inducted into the projects properly and that there were clear communication channels for volunteers to talk to someone if they needed more work or guidance for the work in their placement. The Placement Orientation has vastly improve feedback and helped to ensure volunteers can hit the ground running at their placements.

-- Daniel Radcliffe, IVHQ CEO

Make Long-Term Project Goals More Transparent and Accessible.

Although there are goals established at the start of every project, volunteers can't always grasp long-term goals, especially since short-term trips are so common. Long-term project goals for the community sometimes get lost in the noise of selling the program and telling potential volunteers how it will help them instead of the local community. By making these goals more available, they can become a more important point of focus for volunteers and the organization throughout the volunteer process. Long-term goals also help volunteers put their contributions into perspective.

Go Overseas could help emphasize long-term goals of providers by adding a field on each program listing for providers to explain the specific goal of this project.

What research goes into starting a volunteer project? Is someone responsible for maintaining and monitoring the project once the volunteers are gone?
DWC logo

Sarah Johnstone, Communications Coordinator at Developing World Connections: Our projects are service oriented and are chosen by the host communities themselves. Our teams have been invited by the community to participate. Our volunteers work alongside local villagers and have an opportunity to learn their customs, beliefs, and struggles. Our vision is a sustainable, socially-just, peaceful, and poverty-free global community where people experience the difference they make and the hope they build, all while working alongside each other.

The process to become a DWC Host Partner usually takes 4 to 6 months. Extensive research is done on the potential partner organization and exploratory visits are always conducted before committing to a new partner. Once we have developed a strong partnership, our Host Partners are required to send update reports on their projects. To ensure these reports are accurate, we also rely on information from our Team Leaders (one is assigned to each trip) who complete a report after each trip and from our participants themselves through their post-trip questionnaires. We also conduct yearly assessment trips where we visit each community to meet with our Host Partners and see firsthand the results and impact of each project.

Girl in India

Since our volunteer trips are short-term, between two to four weeks, we commit to the communities we help for an extended period of time – 5 to 10 years or until the community has become self-sufficient and no longer needs our assistance. This way, we are able to see projects through to completion. Once the project is completed, we do monitor its impact on the community. Since we establish strong, mutually beneficial relationships with our Host Partners right from the start, we are able to continue a solid connection even after the projects are completed.

Note: While Developing World Connections doesn't consider ourselves a true “voluntourism provider” nor or we considered one under the document’s definition (as we are not a commercial tour operator), we are extremely pleased and excited to finally have guidelines established for the international voluntourism industry.

-- Sarah Johnstone, DWC Communications Coordinator

Avoid Poverty Marketing.

Poverty marketing is an easy trap to fall into; especially because many people don't understand what it is, how to recognize it, or the harm it can do. Poverty marketing plays on the "dark side of our desire to help the developing world." No matter how good our intentions are, we must always be respectful and even humble when in a foreign culture. We should never assume we know what's best for a community and culture outside of our own. I'm willing to bet most voluntourism-related websites would benefit from a poverty marketing audit to remove all such images and text that rely on extreme poverty to sell. Since it's so hard to define though, I doubt such an audit would be easy or even possible but there are still improvements we can make.

Fortunately, the report includes a helpful list of marketing tips for voluntourism providers to engage with volunteers and share their stories without exploiting poverty. Reviews are listed as "an effective way to encourage prospective volunteers to learn about the volunteer experience" without judging or harming others.

I believe all websites and volunteer organizations, even Go Overseas, can do a better job of keeping this in mind. The report defines “poverty marketing” as:

Using images or words (e.g. “helping people who can’t help themselves”) which belittle or degrade local people. The best way to illustrate this point is by asking (when selecting images to use or choosing words to describe voluntourism projects): “If it was your [child/sister/brother/mother] in the picture, or if those words were written about your family, would you be comfortable?”

Sarah Palmer, former Go Overseas editor and founder of Volunteer Global, is an industry leader with plenty of her own volunteering experience.

How do you feel about the state of poverty marketing in the industry and your work?
Volunteer Global logo

Sarah Palmer: I was super glad to see it in the report! Way back when Volunteer Global was still just a blog, I made a conscious effort to never include photos of starving kids or talk about individuals or populations that "can't help themselves." This was directly a result of my work at Peace Corps, which has the same mindset--we always talked about "host country counterparts" rather than "locals" or "the people you're helping." We always considered Peace Corps volunteers to be completely equal to anyone they worked with--both parties would benefit mutually from one another while working toward a common goal.

-- Sarah Palmer, Volunteer Global Founder

How should perspective volunteers use this guide?

How does this report apply to volunteers, providers, and other industry leaders like Go Overseas?

Although the report was designed "for commercial tour operators," there are ways that individuals and volunteers can use these new Voluntourism Guidelines as well - from choosing a project to maximizing their impact. We reached out to several industry experts for their insight on how this report can be applied to a volunteer.

Pepy tours logo

Daniela Papi, an Advisory Committee member for the report, is the founder of PEPY Tours Cambodia and has done extensive research on how to best utilize volunteers abroad. Daniela says that the report, although designed for providers, can be used to drive questions from travelers. For example: "How long have you had the relationship with the local organization? What problems have you had in the past, and how have you fixed them? What metrics of success does the partner use to decide if the volunteers are valuable?"

She also believes in educational travel as a way to combat the negative aspects of voluntourism. Daniela is a great person to follow for updates on the voluntourism world.

PEPY Tours biking in Cambodia
What aspects of the Voluntourism Guidelines are most important to you? How can we be more effective and as volunteers?

Daniela: Most important to me, is the need to focus on the long-term learning possible from travel, and the importance of learning before we help. Personally, after volunteering all over the world and running a volunteer travel company myself, I believe that there are far too many cases were volunteering has little or even negative impact, and if I had it my way, we would transform the vast majority of voluntourism companies and turn them into edu-tourism companies, requiring all travelers to go abroad to learn in a place first before they decide if/how they might be able to help.

But, there would be very little value of me completely protesting volunteer travel, as even though our company has shifted away from it, hundreds of thousands of volunteers will still travel abroad each year. As such, I want to be a part of creating documents, blogs, talks, and resources which might help those travelers learn from my and others past mistakes, and help improve the impact of this growing sector.

-- Daniela Papi, PEPY Tours Founder

The Voluntourist

Another voluntourism expert, Ken Budd, author of The Voluntourist, shared some thoughts on the Guidelines from the perspective of a traveler.

From your perspective, how effective and important is the report?

Ken: I come at this from the position of a traveler, not as someone offering volunteer experiences. To me, the guidelines seem on target. I volunteered with six well-established groups and I’d say that all of them were basically following these guidelines. It seems like they’re addressing the key issues.

Not knowing the background of how the guidelines were created, I wonder if it’s a case of preaching to the choir. As in, the guidelines were created, I assume, by people and organizations who are already running their operations the right way. Will the start-ups and less-responsible organizations abide by them? That said, having these sorts of guidelines on paper is obviously much better than not having them.

Finding the right organization is tricky for volunteers, because there’s no obvious mechanism in place to evaluate an organization. I usually scrutinized the info on their web sites, asked a lot of questions, asked to speak with previous volunteers, and stuck with well-established groups.

-- Ken Budd, The Voluntourist author

People and Places

Sallie Grayson, also a member of the guideline's Advisory Committee and Programme Director at People & Places, is another person in the industry that you should keep an eye on for the latest voluntourism news and updates. Sallie has confidence in the report but is disappointed in its lack of further guidance. She hopes that there will soon be clear guides in place for "organisations (to learn) about how they can begin to comply with the code and for volunteers as to which questions they should use to interrogate those that claim they are complying."

In your opinion, what are the weaknesses and strengths of the report?

Sallie: I think the guidelines are tough – many organisations will not be able to report on their compliance due to severely restricted resources; and all too many with lots of resources will be able to use smoke and mirrors to suggest they are meeting them.

However, I think they are good guidelines and that responsible organisations should declare which they are able to comply with and which they are not complying with. I also think they are a good tool to help local people and volunteers question sending organisations.

-- Sallie Grayson, People & Places Program Director

Volunteer Global logo
Can you give us some feedback on how you feel the industry is doing in terms of these guidelines?

Sarah: It’s important to note that this report was intended for volunteer sending and tour companies, a very small percentage of organizations that engage in volunteer travel activities. The larger number of international volunteer organizations lies in the local NGOs that accept volunteers directly. While there are an estimated 250 volunteer sending groups and voluntourism providers in the world, there are tens of thousands of community-based organizations that accept international volunteers directly, yet each year, guidelines are released specifically for that former, smaller percentage of organizations.

There has always been a trend for quantity over quality within the volunteer travel industry. It’s easy to recruit more volunteers when you have a greater variety of placements worldwide—and for the many volunteer sending companies that have difficulty scaling, these guidelines and others like them should serve as an excellent jumping off point for assessing their programs and ensuring their sustainability.

-- Sarah Palmer, Volunteer Global Founder

IVPA logo

Genevieve Brown, Executive Director at International Volunteer Programs Association (IVPA), also shared her thoughts on the guidelines.

What do you think of the guidelines and how volunteers be sure their project follows them as well?

Genevieve: The guidelines set out in this report are important. I think there are challenges to 100% compliance for any organization. Concerning measuring and reporting volunteer providers are faced with the same challenges as nonprofits here in the US. Everyone knows measuring and reporting is important but it does require time and resources. Often it gets pushed to the back burner in the rush of immediate needs and daily operations. This is especially true when setting up a third-party reporting system. That can be costly in terms of money and time. I think quality organizations do try to develop feedback mechanisms and measurements; they just might not be executed perfectly because of constraints.

One of the biggest things prospective volunteers can do is educate themselves about volunteer opportunities and providers. When volunteers know what questions to ask they can use that information as a powerful tool in their decision-making process. Most volunteers won’t read this guide or even be aware it exists. I would recommend volunteers think about what questions they can ask before selecting their program that can act as a guide and help cue them into some important things to think about.

-- Genevieve Brown, IVPA Executive Director

What can and does Go Overseas do to address the guidelines?

We must also ask ourselves "What changes is Go Overseas making to address the importance of responsible tourism?" The Go Overseas team is always hard at work to improve our site and contribute to the voluntourism community. The report only emphasizes the importance of our work. Here are a few ways we plan to hold providers even more accountable for their work overseas.

Volunteers on the beach in Madagascar
  • Funding: Ask providers to give a breakdown of where the program fees go and what the program needs money for.
  • Partner organizations: Providers should list the local in-country organizations that work on each project.
  • Transparency: Go Overseas has already implemented a new feature where providers can respond to reviews. This type of open communication helps hold organizations to higher standards.
  • Reviews: Reviews are a BIG part of Go Overseas. By gathering feedback from past volunteers and making it publicly available on Go Overseas, we can contribute to a strong voluntourism community. Providers should use this feedback from reviews to improve their volunteer programs.

Here at Go Overseas, we look forward to a strong future for voluntourism that continues to help communities around the world grow and expand our intercultural understanding.

Related Resources

Katie Boyer

Katie is a Bay Area native who studied public relations, journalism, and Spanish at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, CA. Follow Katie Boyer on Twitter, and Google+.